Former New Orleans police Officer Donald Nides, who was standing trial in federal court this week for allegedly taking bribes of cash and oral sex from the operator of a Metairie pain clinic while he worked on a federal drug enforcement task force, killed himself overnight Tuesday following the first full day of testimony in the case.
Nides, 64, was a 34-year New Orleans Police Department veteran who faced nine federal counts, including conspiracy to dispense prescription pain pills, lying to federal agents and obstruction of justice. He shot himself at his River Ridge home, said his defense attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann.
“His wife is devastated,” Lemann said. “I think it was the eagerness with which these bastards testified against him that got to him.”
Lemann was referring to a pair of witnesses who testified Tuesday against Nides, who stood accused of taking regular cash payments and sexual favors in exchange for protecting a pair of sham pain clinics from federal detection.
“I thought we were definitely in the game,” Lemann said, adding he’d never before had a client commit suicide in the middle of trial.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who was presiding over the criminal case, confirmed Nides’ suicide during a brief hearing Wednesday morning, calling it “sad news.”
Morgan granted a motion by federal prosecutors to dismiss the charges. The jury was not present during the hearing.
Nides had two children and was expecting his first grandchild, Lemann said. He was facing several decades in prison if convicted.
“He’s been under a lot of stress, but it came as a shock to me,” the attorney said outside Morgan’s courtroom. “We did not have any notion that this was a problem.”
Gerry Cvitanovich, the Jefferson Parish coroner, said authorities were notified of Nides’ death about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. The former officer, who had been out of jail on bond, appeared to have suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
“Our condolences go out to the Nides family on their loss,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said. “We thank Judge Morgan and the jury for their careful consideration of this case.”
The jury had yet to hear testimony from Tiffany Miller Gambino, a co-defendant who pleaded guilty last week and was expected to provide lurid accounts of performing oral sex on Nides as well as making cash payments to the officer between mid-2004 and May 2008.
Gambino operated the clinics, Omni Pain Management in Metairie and Omni Pain Management Plus in Slidell, which were taking in some $1.5 million a year and accepting only cash from prescription pill abusers.
Dr. Joseph Mogan III, a former pain doctor who pleaded guilty along with Gambino last week, testified that Nides had protected the clinics, in part by advising the clinic’s operators about the patterns of prescription pill sales that would spark Drug Enforcement Administration interest. Knowing how to avoid those red flags, he said, helped the “pill mills” remain under the radar for years.
Among the counts Nides faced were charges he lied to federal agents about his communications with Gambino, to whom he was accused of leaking information about open DEA investigations. Prosecutors presented phone records Tuesday that showed the two were in regular contact, even after Nides was no longer a member of the DEA task force.
Lemann said Wednesday he was confident he could have persuaded the jury to acquit Nides. He told jurors during opening statements that the government’s case had been based on the word of Mogan and Gambino, both of whom were seeking more lenient sentences in exchange for their testimony.
“They do have it out for this man. There’s no doubt about it,” Lemann told the jury, referring to the authorities. “They have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intentionally corrupted a badge that he’s worn proudly for 40 years.”
Lemann portrayed Nides as a committed husband who had been known as “Detail Don” within the NOPD because of his willingness to work extra-duty details.
Nides, who joined the department in 1974 and retired in late 2008, served as a deputized member of the DEA task force for several years and had established a rapport with Gambino he claimed was strictly for law enforcement purposes.
He said he visited Omni regularly to obtain information from Gambino about patients suspected of “doctor shopping,” or going from physician to physician seeking the same prescriptions. Nides later acknowledged to federal investigators, however, that he couldn’t recall referring a single case for prosecution based on those visits.
Mogan and Gambino, in pleading guilty to money laundering and a drug conspiracy that dated back to 2003, admitted that their clinics, while purporting to offer pain management, “ultimately did little more than write prescriptions,” according to court documents. The clinics were shut down last year after authorities searched the premises.
Mogan told jurors the clinics had been pill mills from their inception. Patients, some of whom came to the clinics under the influence of drugs, drove long distances and waited hours to be seen. The clinics often issued prescriptions for “the holy trinity,” a cocktail of painkillers including hydrocodone, a sedative such as Xanax or Valium and a muscle relaxant known as Soma.
“I was greedy,” Mogan testified. “I did it for the money.”
Nides — who had previously served on an FBI task force and, after his retirement, as a reserve officer at the NOPD — had been removed from his DEA duties in March 2008 after an investigation revealed he concealed the relationship that fellow police Officer Paul Toye III had with another pain management clinic that had come under federal suspicion, according to court documents. Toye’s son owned the clinic, Advanced Medical Management, and as it was being investigated, agents had spotted Nides sitting alone in a vehicle in the parking lot even though the DEA hadn’t requested he conduct surveillance there.
“When the agents approached Nides, he claimed that he was on surveillance, had already investigated the suspicious conduct at the clinic and found that the clinic was not engaged in any illegal activity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry McSherry wrote in court filings.
George Cazenavette, a longtime DEA agent who previously led the agency’s New Orleans field office, told jurors Tuesday that, when confronted, Nides had acknowledged Omni was a pill mill. But, according to Cazenavette, Nides claimed it wasn’t his job on the DEA task force to pursue such operations, only to seek out doctor shopping by patients.
On Wednesday, Cazenavette said outside the courtroom that he was “shocked” by Nides’ suicide. “My prayers are with his family,” he added.
Lemann said he had anticipated federal prosecutors would wrap up their case Wednesday, and he had been prepared to begin presenting the ex-officer’s defense, beginning with testimony by his former partner. Instead, the veteran defense attorney walked out of the courthouse and down Poydras Street alone.
“I think what destroyed him was his former colleagues testifying,” Lemann said. “I don’t think he was going to be convicted.”